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March 30, 2023

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Pope takes Vatican trappings to a new plain

After life dedicated to simplicity, new pontiff may dial back Church's pomp

The Columbian
2 Photos
VATICAN CITY -- Instead of the bus, a chauffeur. No longer a tiny apartment, but a penthouse suite.
VATICAN CITY -- Instead of the bus, a chauffeur. No longer a tiny apartment, but a penthouse suite. Not just a new name, but his own personal coat of arms. Photo Gallery

VATICAN CITY — Instead of the bus, a chauffeur. No longer a tiny apartment, but a penthouse suite. Not just a new name, but his own personal coat of arms.

Such are the perks and trappings of office being thrust upon Pope Francis as he assumes leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers. There’s just one catch: He may not want them.

Like a man who has won the lottery against his will, the new pontiff has already begun refusing some of the privileges that come with his new job, in keeping with the austere, almost ascetic ways he has pursued up to now as a Jesuit priest.

For his unveiling as pope Wednesday to the throng in St. Peter’s Square, he shunned a fur-trimmed red half-cloak and golden cross in favor of plain white vestments and his usual iron cross. To go pray at a church in central Rome on Thursday, he hopped into a regular Vatican sedan, not the papal limousine. He prefers a simple miter to more elaborate, richly decorated headgear.

Such actions seem typical of a man celebrated for his humility back in his native Argentina, where, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he served most of his clerical life. But they are new to the Vatican and to a church often decked in pomp and pageantry, and the new pope may soon be tested in how far he can take them.

“He’s trying to be himself, not to change himself. But at the same time he’s completely aware of his role,” said Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, referring to the pope’s position as heir to St. Peter. “He’s trying to find a balance.”

Many of the faithful are marveling at their new leader’s refreshing simplicity, his sense of all-embracing equality and distaste for show. But such values can sit uneasily within an institution noted for its strict hierarchy and, in some quarters, a very worldly splendor.

For some Catholics, such trappings form part of their experience of the divine and their idea of the glorious role of the church and the pope as God’s representative on Earth. Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, brought back the ermine-trimmed cloaks and winter hats and other ceremonial garb that had fallen into disuse.

“You have to remember that Benedict was a clotheshorse,” said Christopher M. Bellitto, an expert in church history at Kean University in New Jersey. “Now you have a man who criticizes priests for strutting around like peacocks.”

Not for Francis the red leather shoes favored by Benedict. Indeed, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire reported that a priest at the cathedral in Buenos Aires banded together with some friends to buy a pair of new shoes for Bergoglio before the papal election conclave in Rome because his footwear looked so tattered.

On Friday, after an audience with senior prelates, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tweeted, “At our meeting today with Pope Francis, I noted that (he) is still wearing his older black shoes. I pray that he keeps them as a sign for us all.”

Limits on humility

But even as the head of what is essentially Europe’s last absolute monarchy, Francis is already discovering that his power and humble practice have limits.

On his visit Thursday morning to the St. Mary Major basilica in downtown Rome to pray, he rode in a modest Vatican car with only a small security detail, eschewing the papal Mercedes and a police escort. When the guards in charge of his safety moved to close off the basilica to the public, the pope asked that it be kept open.

Nothing doing.

“The gendarmes of the Vatican said no,” said an employee at the church who declined to give his name. “The pope wanted it open, but the wish of the pope was not obeyed.”

Security is likely to be tight on the pontiff’s foreign trips, where the man who used to ride the bus around Buenos Aires is likely to be chagrined to see traffic blocked for his sake. In addition to head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope will have to adjust to being a head of state who will be treated as such.

“He’s trying to understand; he’s very attentive and obedient to what people around him say is important,” said Spadaro, the editor. “But he also understands he can say, ‘No, this is what I want.’ “

Francis has apparently said yes to the official papal apartment, spacious wraparound digs atop the Apostolic Palace, with a view over magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica. The apartment boasts inlaid marble floors, a frescoed loggia, chapel, private study, medical clinic and a library that was remodeled to house Benedict’s 20,000 books.

Francis probably had little choice but to accept his new lodgings. No one suggests that such luxuries interest the new pope. So far, his demeanor has been striking for its mildness and humbleness, especially toward the cardinals.

Whether some of them are as thrilled about Francis’ frugality and restraint, which many will now feel duty-bound to emulate, is not clear.

“If the home office starts sending signals about simplicity, that’s what’s going to happen,” said Bellitto of Kean University.

“My hope is that they will embrace simplicity because they see that that’s the right model to follow as opposed to a path for their ambition,” Bellitto said. “You can’t fake humility.”